Seven teams to watch in the EUCS Open Qualifier
STARTING 5: Bor "Kektz" Jeršan, Jonas "Memento" Elmarghichi, Sebastian "Sebekx" Smejkal, Martin "HeaQ" Kordmaa, Niklas "Zytan" Lakaniemi.
This is a roster of players who have been waiting a couple of years for their break-out moment as they bounce from Challenger team to Challenger team. Their paths have actually previously intersected on two occasions; Sebekx and Zytan were both on mousesports in Challenger Series this split, while Kektz and HeaQ were teammates on 3sUP Enterprises.
The most interesting name on this roster is Kektz. The Slovenian top laner is regarded favourably by many, and the fact that he was a sub on Deilor's Fnatic for all of last year (including an attempt to build an academy team around him and NoxiaK) speaks volumes to the perception held by many of his potential. Indeed, e's arguably been the best carry-role player on all the teams he's played on, with the exception of his stint with HolyPhoenix on the original Low Priority (whom contested the 2015 summer qualifiers unsuccessfully)
While this might not be the strongest roster he's had around him, it's probably the one with the best supporting cast; Zytan brings a wealth of experience at this point, while Memento is coming off an impressive season in Russia on Team Empire. This roster's talent doesn't jump out and hit one in the face, but with extensive experience in Challenger-level competition on all players bar Kektz and HeaQ, this is quietly an extremely promising lineup.
The main question will be whether this team can get off the ground running quickly enough. A first-round bye will be followed with a baptism by fire against Giants Underdoges, a team that has been slumping recently in the LVP but still boast arguably the most talented roster on paper in Europe's strongest national league (including the carry-oriented jer0m to face up against Kektz).
STARTING 5: Ashley "Rifty" Mayes, Luke "Phurion" Brammer, Emil "Larssen" Larsson, Ludvig "XDSMILEY" Granquist, Mantas "Hadow" Sukevicius.
While the big story in the UK scene this year was undoubtedly yet another UK super-roster with yet another big backer (Renegades: Banditos), they weren't the only team of interest. Serving for most of the year as the only thing to check their dominance was the newly-formed Manalight - a team that joined British scene veterans Rifty and Hadow, as well as Phurion, with newly-of-age Swedish solo queue stars Larssen and XDSMILEY.
While RNB ultimately got the better of their opponents on most occasions (including a 3-0 over them in the ESL Premiership spring playoffs), ManaLight acquitted themselves well - particularly in the cases of Phurion and XDSMILEY - and looked a class above the rest of an admittedly weak scene. In spite of some impressive showings, however, the string of second places just wasn't good enough for the organisation, and with investors withdrawing the organisation formally closed doors last Saturday.
It's not completely clear whether this team will participate in the qualifier - the team entered as ManaLight, the decision to drop the team came one day after the CS qualifier lock, and all members have publically declared their availability to teams upon completion of their contracts next Saturday. If they do choose to stick it out and keep on playing together, it wouldn't be surprising to see this roster make a run. While both may be young and have relatively modest competitive experience, Phurion and XDSMILEY have looked like two of the best players outside of the Challenger Series at times, and a possible meta shift on 6.8 and beyond away from tank-heavy compositions and towards double-AP could open up Larssen to break games open with assassin picks.
Their route through won't be easy - meetings with both Illuminar Honor Gaming and Low Priority beckon along the way. Yet, if any team's going to make a surprise run, it's probably going to be them.
Illuminar Honor Gaming
STARTING 5: Jakub "Kubon" Turewicz, Wojciech "Tabasko" Kruza, Remigiusz "Overpow" Push, Jakub "Creaton" Grzegorzewski, Patryk "Mystiques" Piórkowski.
2015 was the year that the Polestack as a concept took several bullets to the chest. For whatever reason, even as European League of Legends saw a diminishing of genuinely or essentially mono-national teams among its top competitors in Season 2 and into the LCS era, there were always mono-Polish teams to be found in the highest echelons of play. From Gameburg Team taking second at the World Cyber Games in 2011, to Anexis eSports and MeetYourMakers showing up at IEM after IEM, to Kiedys Mialem Team (later Team ROCCAT)'s accession to LCS in 2014 as MYM fell out of it, Polish teams always seemed to be around and always seemed to outperform the individual ability or reputation of their members.
One by one, the Polestacks crumbled that year. Team ROCCAT brought in Nukeduck in the spring and moved Overpow to top to replace Xaxus, before removing both Overpow and Woolite in the summer - the remaining two Polish members, Jankos and Vander, would depart for H2K in the autumn. In the Challenger Series, Reason Gaming put up a characteristic overperformance - taking a game off Origen in the spring playoff semi-finals and beating Gamers2 for a Promotion Tournament berth - before completely imploding under new management in the summer, putting together a 1-9 split as Team Overclockers UK.
The Polestack for 2016 was supposed to be Illuminar Honor Gaming. The roster of Kubon, Tabasko, niQ, Creaton, and Mystiques tore through the EUNE qualifier, and easily beat ESL Meisterschaft champions Mysterious Monkeys, only to be stomped 3-0 by Team Huma. For the first time in the LCS era, there would be no Polestack in the LCS, the Challenger Series, or its equivalent.
Interestingly, instead of entering the EUNE qualifier - a route that would seem to almost guarantee a place in the final qualifier given their ease last time and the fact that it only has 5 entrants in total this time - IHG have chosen to go through EUW. Perhaps there's an element of trying to hit the ground running this time; or, perhaps some members didn't have D3 accounts on EUNE.
In any case, it's not like this team isn't strong enough to go all the way. The roster is the same as last time, except with niQ (who is now on Szef+6, another Polestack who have already made it to the main qualifier via their ESL Mistrzostwa win) replaced by Overpow. The carry trio of Kubon, Overpow, and Creaton may have been a more impressive set of names in 2014, but it's still a skilled and extremely experienced group, and after an entire split spent as a team (albeit while only able to participate in local competition) it's not hard to see this team coming out swinging. If they can get past Manalight, expect to see IHG in the main qualifier, and expect them to be a dark horse to return Poland to its rightful place (in Challenger).
Fnatic Academy (Chocolate Orange Fudge!)
STARTING 5: Jorge "Werlyb" Casanovas, Matthew "Impaler" Taylor, Hicham "SozPurefect" Tazrhini, Sébastien "Exork" Lamorte, Johan "Klaj" Olsson.
Historically, European LCS teams haven't been as enthusiastic about the notion of academy team as their North American counterparts, to the point where there have been more NA LCS orgs represented in the Challenger Series (Cloud 9 Eclipse, Team Coast Gold, Team Dignitas EU) than EU LCS ones (SK Gaming Prime and very briefly Copenhagen Wolves Academy).
This is actually the second iteration of Fnatic Academy, but arguably the first serious one; the 2015 spring roster was only distinguished by the presence of NoxiaK and by being the only EUW team to lose to an EUNE one (Different Dimension) in either of the 2015 EUCS qualifiers.
This looks at first glance to be a roster that could come into the season as the favourites to take the Challenger Series. Werlyb really should have been on an EU LCS roster last split, and in any case was certainly the best top laner in Challenger, hard-carrying Team Huma when on his signature champions (most notably Jax) and still finding ways to carry from top lane in the midst of a tank meta when not.
Beyond Werlyb, the roster boasts two other players with LCS experience in the forms of recently-dispossessed Fnatic LCS support Klaj and former Supa Hot Crew and Team Coast jungler Impaler. Rounding out the roster are SozPurefect and Exork, both most recently of Natus Vincere's EU squad.
Fnatic Academy is no hastily-hatched venture. In spite of what the situation with Klaj may lead one to believe, the team have been working on putting together this staff since at least early February, and while it's not clear exactly whom is involved and how in said infrastructure it would seem like a bad bet to stake against the competency of the Fnatic organisation in this case.
It's hard to see who could possibly end up in Challenger this season that would be better than Werlyb or Klaj at their positions, and while the other three names bring some baggage with them - Impaler's struggles with Final Five and Ex Nihilo, SozPurefect's reputation for inconsistency, Exork's lack of competitive experience - none stand out as glaringly lacking in comparison to their competition.
GG Call Nash
STARTING 5: "Jhorxia", Alexandre "Narkuss" Mege, Louis "Polyokov" Hamet, Beverly "Myw" Bioli, Andréas "Sardoche" Honnet.
This one will be a little interesting. You can't separate GG Call Nash from the giant of the French scene that is Narkuss - the team's now popped into existence on multiple occasions at his behest. A cynical view would look at this latest effort as a stream promotion more than as a serious competitive team, a French version of Spandauer Inferno; the fact that all five members of this team have been running a 5-man unranked-to-Challenger-esque series using the accounts that they have entered the qualifier with does little to banish said cynicism.
Yet, as much as GG Call Nash might be a marketing ploy more than anything, it's not like this isn't a talented team by the standards of this qualifier. At the very least, Polyokov is legitimately a Challenger Series-level player, and while nobody could accuse him of being a savant Narkuss is nonetheless something of a wildcard.
Honestly, it's more than likely that GG CN fall flat on their face in their first or second match; yet, stranger things have happened, and there could be some scalps claimed in likely hilarious fashion if teams aren't careful.
STARTING 5: Antonio "ReventXz" Pino, Daniel "ElOjeteNinja" Vaquero, Sergi "Lvsyan" Madrigal, Mario "Motroco" Martinez Garcia, Eduardo "RafaL0L" Moreira.
While there are unending criticisms that can be made of the state of the sub-Challenger Series scene in the LCS era, Spain's Liga de Videojuegos Profesional is one of the few cases of a national league that has arguably grown stronger in that time. The LVP is at this point almost certainly the strongest in Europe, and there's an argument to be made that it's beginning to serve as a stepping stone and training ground for young talent at a time where that is becoming more and more of a concern for teams higher up the ladder.
Four current LVP teams are in this tournament (and one more - G2 Vodafone - already has a spot in the main qualifier), but ASUS Army look the most encouraging of the group. Under the direction of star jungler ElOjeteNinja and veteran bot-lane duo Motroco and Rafa, the Army currently sit at second in the LVP with a 4-3-1 (11-5) record on the season so far.
As the strongest LVP team in the qualifier, yet at the same time not being a team that automatically stands out as a small fish in a big pond, it's hard not to see the Army's showing in this qualifier as being a yardstick for how good the LVP truly is. This is a team that is good enough on paper to make a long run, particularly given its position on the weaker side of the bracket, and could even be the step that's needed to open up the league to a truly international audience.
K1CK Esports Club
STARTING 5: Alexandre "Truklax" Nascimento, António "LeChase" Ramalho, Francisco "Xico" Cruz, Pedro "Kepe" Ferreira, Rúben "rhuckz" Barbosa.
K1CK are an oasis of stability in the miasma that is the European Challenger Series. The current K1CK Black roster has quietly persisted for coming up to a year and a half now (bar a brief period without rhuckz where the roster remained inactive until his return), which is remarkable less for the organisation sticking with the players than the players with the org - the enthusiasm in the Portuguese scene has never been matched with scope, and while their fellow pros have been less than complementary at times it's hard to completely discount the impressive personal credentials of all five members as reflected by their ranked queue rankings (particularly with regards to jungle-mid combo LeChase and Xico).
It's arguably been more bad luck than anything that we haven't seen much of them outside of local competition. They were the unlucky malefactors of the summer 2015 ranked 5s ladder rush - finishing 7th, just 40 LP outside of the final qualification spot yet over 180 above their next-nearest rivals - and probably would have been the third team out in spring 2016, beating both GG Call Nash and Enigma Esports in a run that was cut brutally short by the juggernaut that was Millenium at that time.
We have seen them twice in significant Challenger LANs - they attended both DreamHack Valencia and the eSports Festival in the summer of 2015 - and their results at both were far from bad, upsetting against All authority en-route to a second-place finish in the former and picking up group stage wins over then-current and future top-4 Challenger Series sides Denial eSports and Gamers2 in the latter.
In this qualifier, there aren't really any excuses left for K1CK - there is no Millenium on their side of the bracket this time, and with only ASUS Army looming as a serious threat (albeit an early one), this should be the split that we see the great Portuguese hope fighting for their shot at a Challenger Series spot.
The EU Challenger Series Open Qualifier kicks off on Tuesday 26th April. Header image courtesy of lolesports.